Meaning and Emotion in Animal Vocalizations


Address for correspondence: Robert M. Seyfarth, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104. Voice: 215-898-9349; fax: 215-898-7301.


Abstract: Historically, a dichotomy has been drawn between the semantic communication of human language and the apparently emotional calls of animals. Current research paints a more complicated picture. Just as scientists have identified elements of human speech that reflect a speaker's emotions, field experiments have shown that the calls of many animals provide listeners with information about objects and events in the environment. Like human speech, therefore, animal vocalizations simultaneously provide others with information that is both semantic and emotional. In support of this conclusion, we review the results of field experiments on the natural vocalizations of African vervet monkeys, diana monkeys, baboons, and suricates (a South African mongoose). Vervet and diana monkeys give acoustically distinct alarm calls in response to the presence of leopards, eagles, and snakes. Each alarm call type elicits a different, adaptive response from others nearby. Field experiments demonstrate that listeners compare these vocalizations not just according to their acoustic properties but also according to the information they convey. Like monkeys, suricates give acoustically distinct alarm calls in response to different predators. Within each predator class, the calls also differ acoustically according to the signaler's perception of urgency. Like speech, therefore, suricate alarm calls convey both semantic and emotional information. The vocalizations of baboons, like those of many birds and mammals, are individually distinctive. As a result, when one baboon hears a sequence of calls exchanged between two or more individuals, the listener acquires information about social events in its group. Baboons, moreover, are skilled “eavesdroppers:” their response to different call sequences provides evidence of the sophisticated information they acquire from other individuals' vocalizations. Baboon males give loud “wahoo” calls during competitive displays. Like other vocalizations, these highly emotional calls provide listeners with information about the caller's dominance rank, age, and competitive ability. Although animal vocalizations, like human speech, simultaneously encode both semantic and emotional information, they differ from language in at least one fundamental respect. Although listeners acquire rich information from a caller's vocalization, callers do not, in the human sense, intend to provide it. Listeners acquire information as an inadvertent consequence of signaler behavior.